After Anthem Protests, N.F.L. Plots a Careful Path Forward

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It is clear from interviews with N.F.L. officials and more than a dozen teams that owners and team executives would prefer that the protests end, both for personal reasons and because it risks inflaming the president, who has been a friend and ally of many of the owners, and alienating fans and sponsors. But they are also wary of appearing heavy handed and upsetting the image of unity that the league sought to project last weekend.

What has emerged in meetings across the league this week — from locker rooms to N.F.L. headquarters — is a strategy of not pushing back at an unpredictable president. Instead, the players, with input from team officials, are seeking to shape a message that shows their desire to stand together while still addressing the original intent of the protests: raising awareness of police brutality against African Americans and racism in general.

“The players have a right to speak their minds, but on the other hand, it can make it difficult because there isn’t anyone in America who doesn’t want to honor America,” Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, said in an interview. “You talk to other owners and the commissioner, they feel the same way, they support the players.”

But in a league with 32 teams, 2,000 players and a wide range of political views in the locker room and owners’ suites, finding consensus has been difficult as myriad conversations have taken place throughout the league.

In Charlotte, several players visited the house of Jerry Richardson, the team owner, to express their frustration with what they perceived to be restrictions on their ability to speak on social issues. In Kansas City, Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley said that teammates respectfully told him they disagreed with his decision to kneel during the anthem last Sunday. The Steelers are still dealing with the fallout from their decision to stay indoors when the anthem was played last weekend; the starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, later said he regretted not appearing on the sideline for the anthem.

At the same time, several owners, including Blank and Shahid Khan of the Jacksonville Jaguars, have said they will not be present on the sidelines for the anthem in the future. Some teams, like the Broncos, have sought to deflect questions by quickly deciding quickly what to do on the coming game day. The Packers, which had three players sit in recent weeks, had said Tuesday they would only lock arms as a team on Thursday.

Goodell and his advisers have looked to soothe sponsors’ concerns, speaking to them from league headquarters in Manhattan. Though Nike and other companies have issued statements in support of the players’ right to protest, DirectTV, which sells the Sunday Ticket package of every N.F.L. game, reportedly will allow fans to receive refunds if they cite the anthem protests as a reason.

The league is also monitoring fan reaction, especially on social media, where videos have surfaced showing people burning N.F.L. jerseys. Nearly every team has been fielding hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of calls from fans, most of them opposed to the protests. Some have even turned in their season tickets.

“We understand there is anger out there,” Joe Lockhart, a league spokesman, said. “We understand some of it is based on political agendas, but some of our fans’ anger is based on their own principles. We get that and we understand that.”

In some ways, the N.F.L. can afford to wait and see what happens. With tens of millions of viewers each week watching games on networks that have long-term, multibillion dollar rights deals with the N.F.L., sponsors are hesitant to cut ties over a single issue, even one this volatile. On average, about 70 percent of a team’s revenue comes from these television and sponsorship deals, which ensures that every team turns a profit.

Still, the league wants the focus to remain on the field, something President Trump is eager to exploit. On Wednesday, he needled the league again, saying that if N.F.L. did not crack down on the protesters, its business “is going to hell.” On Thursday, he said the owners were “afraid of their players.”

Though Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner, spoke to the president, league executives said they have not reached out to the White House. For days, Lockhart, the league spokesman, has not responded directly to Mr. Trump’s comments, though on Thursday he did call the president’s statement that the owners were afraid of their players “inaccurate.” One league adviser compared the N.F.L.’s approach to the strategy of letting a boxer punch himself out.

“The thing with this guy, it doesn’t matter what people think,” the adviser, who was not authorized to speak for the league, said of the president. “When he thinks he’s winning, he doubles down and doubles down, and there are very few entities that have the skill, desire and thick skin to take it. So it’s a war of attrition.”

The league and its owners are also afraid that fighting the president will distract their players, who are already spending hours discussing how or whether to protest, from preparing for games or working out.

“While we feel like we’re a political sideshow, we still have to win football games,” one team adviser said.

Still, teams are trying to let the players come to an agreement themselves. Many players who knelt last weekend say they have made their point and are ready to resume standing for the anthem. Those who were previously vocal about social activism are unlikely to stop, because they do not want President Trump to claim victory.

Then there are the Seattle Seahawks, in their own category. More than any other team, they have been at the vanguard of social activism, with three of their best players — Doug Baldwin, Michael Bennett and Richard Sherman — using their platforms to…

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